by Sune Haugbolle.
Here is my take on the National Dialogue discussions that began today in Beirut.
The National Dialogue was launched in 2006, prior to Israel’s July-August 2006 war against Lebanon, as an ambitious attempt to tackle the fundamental differences between the country’s ‘March 8′ and ‘March 14′ coalitions. The last round was held in June 2009, ahead of parliamentary elections. Today’s resumption of talks signals a thaw in internal relations that was highlighted by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s state visit to Damascus in December 2009. Yet it also reflects rising tensions in the region.
The topic that will overshadow all others is a new defence strategy, and (although Hizbollah won’t like it to be mentioned) the role of Hizbollah’s weapons. The weapons topic has been shelved since the government recognised the group’s right to resistance against Israel in December. A revival of the discussion was inevitable, given its highly controversial nature.
President Michel Suleiman’s call to resume dialogue followed a February 28 report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 summer war with Israel. In the report, Ban urged Suleiman to push Lebanon’s parties towards consensus on a defence strategy.
Suleiman’s decision to hold meetings may also have been the result of US pressure.
National Dialogue discussions coincide with heightened tensions caused by an exchange of threats between Israel on the one hand and Hizbollah, Syria and Iran on the other. The tensions have put renewed international spotlight on Hizbollah’s weapons.
The Shia party is believed to have increased its arsenal of rockets from 15,000 before the 2006 war to 40,000 today, some of which may be able to reach Tel Aviv. During a February 16 speech, Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah offered a new vision of strategic parity with Israel — an uneasy ‘balance of terror’ — stressing Hizbollah’s ability to strike Israel’s interior.
Nasrallah’s decision to raise the stakes has provoked fears that Israel will feel forced into pre-emptive action against Lebanon, even if no conflict breaks out over Iran.
Israeli leaders have vowed to fight ‘all’ of Lebanon in the event of an outbreak of conflict (as opposed to targeting Hizbollah alone), as a result of the movement’s participation in government.
Nasrallah in Damascus
Nasrallah answered Israeli threats by closing ranks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad when they met last month in Damascus . The meeting conveyed two main messages:
First, that Washington has failed to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, and is unlikely to see more success in the near future. This was highlighted by the timing of the meeting, which occurred immediately after the US decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus, illustrating Syria’s newfound confidence and willing defiance.
And second that, in the event of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran’s primary answer will be through Hizbollah and will therefore involve Lebanon.
Nasrallah’s conduct in Damascus as a ‘pseudo’ Lebanese minister of foreign affairs has drawn strong criticism from many March 14 leaders, who reiterate the sovereign right of Lebanon’s government to decide over matters of war and peace. This puts President Suleiman in a difficult situation at the National Dialogue meetings.
He will be determined to ensure national unity, having from the beginning of his tenure tried to position himself centrally. The dialogue meetings could be a means to calm tensions and avert conflict, but only if Suleiman is seen as a neutral arbiter. He must thus avoid siding too openly with March 14 against Hizbollah.
He will also need to respond to international pressure on the weapons issue. He will hope that the National Dialogue gives the impression that the Lebanese state — and not Hizbollah — still makes decisions on war and peace.
Finally, he must decide on the extent of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) cooperation with UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon. The two sides have recently performed joint manoeuvres on Mount Hermon, ostensibly designed to stem the flow of arms to Hizbollah. More extensive LAF cooperation with the UN could force a verbal confrontation with Nasrallah.
One should not expect too much from this week’s session. In reality, all parties know that, as Hizbollah demonstrated in the May 2008 fighting, its hand cannot be forced by any Lebanese party. It is also clear that no consensus can be reached in the current heated situation; and that the meeting is primarily a result of Suleiman needing to demonstrate to the West that he is doing something.
Therefore, the meetings are largely symbolic, though the stakes are high. If things go badly, the discussions could underscore the gulf between March 8 and March 14, reversing the tide of their improved relationship under the Hariri government. In any case, March 14 and others will treasure having a platform to express their deep concerns over the prospects a new war with Israel, which may in the end restrain Hizbollah. In the best case scenario, provide the platform for real negotiations in the future about a defence strategy formula that integrates Hizbollah’s weapons into the LAF.
Despite the fact that Hizbollah will not disarm and Israel increasingly sees the group as an existential threat, a regional war involving Hizbollah is unlikely in the coming months.
Having learned the lesson from the 2006 war, the group will not get easily drawn into a new conflict and will resist minor Israeli ‘provocations’, let alone staging military operations against Israel. In order to maintain national and international legitimacy, it is necessary for Hizbollah to fight a defensive war, if anything at all.
On the Israeli side, despite the usual gung-ho rhetoric, the leadership cannot politically justify an unprovoked attack on Hizbollah. It may seek an excuse, thus provoking Hizbollah into small clashes, but the latter is aware of this and will seek not to respond. The Israeli leadership will heed US warnings and refrain from attacking Iran before more diplomatic efforts have been exerted. If it does strike, it will do so no earlier than the autumn.
In the longer term, a clash is more likely — whether it arises from an Israeli strike on Iran, or some other action. Hizbollah will wait until a war fits its strategic thinking, since the need to maintain domestic legitimacy at present tops its strategic agenda. Nevertheless, these priorities are not set in stone; strategy may change should there be a shift in the balance of power within the group.
In conclusion, Suleiman faces a hard task containing the March 14 coalition’s deep reservations about Hizbollah’s weapons. If he succeeds, the National Dialogue meetings could strengthen the government. If not, Lebanon will once again appear divided, risking the stability of the fragile unity government, and increasing the chance of outside powers taking advantage of domestic divisions, as they routinely do in times of conflict in Lebanon.